Senior Shia cleric urges Iraqis to vote in elections

Iraq's top Shia cleric urged voters yesterday to turn out for parliamentary elections set for 7 March. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned that failure to participate in the election would allow others to achieve "illegitimate goals".

Mr Sistani's latest call comes at a time when Sunni leaders are threatening a boycott over the ban of more than 400 mostly Sunni candidates for alleged ties to Saddam's outlawed Ba'ath Party.

Most Sunni Arabs boycotted Iraq's first post-Saddam general election in January 2005, a move that robbed the once-dominant minority of a proportionate say in the running of the country. That, in turn, stoked a Sunni insurgency and paved the way for the Shia-Sunni bloodbath that peaked in 2006 and 2007. The country's ruling Shia establishment respect Mr Sistani's spiritual leadership but also fear that ignoring his wishes could spark a backlash from the country's majority Shias.

Mr Sistani's comments were in response to followers who sent in questions on the merits of participating in the vote, given what they see as the poor performance of lawmakers and officials.

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